Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Terrance Hayes and David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2014_

 A LOVELY INTRODUCTION by Hayes--turns out an earlier volume in the series (the 1990 one, edited by Jorie Graham) was the first book of poetry he ever purchased, back when he was in college. He casts the introduction as interview of himself by...Charles Kinbote. Not bad.

The 2014 volume was satisfying in the ways I have come to expect from the series: stylistic variety, some old hands and some new faces, virtually all the poems worth reading and a few of them outstanding (including poems by Kathleen Graber, Patricia Lockwood, Cate Marvin, Diane Seuss, and Sandra Simonds, in my opinion).

There seem to be a higher than average number of African-American poets this year, but what is more interesting than that is my only realizing this after reading the contributors' notes and seeing how many of them were associated with Cave Canem. The poetry from the African American contributors, in other words, fits fairly smoothly, both aesthetically and in it subject matter, with the rest of the best American poetry of 2014.

Which it would, I guess--the African American poets went through the same MFA programs as the rest, got the same advice from the same teachers, were exposed to the same influences, and write about love, family, memory, pain...so how different would anyone expect them to be?

As it happens, last month I was re-reading Dudley Randall's 1970 anthology, The Black Poets (I had assigned it in one of my classes), focusing on the lengthy section of 1960s poets, which includes Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, June Jordan, Don Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Nikki Giovanni, and several others. And while they do sometimes sound a bit like each other, they do not sound at all like W. S. Merwin, or Sylvia Plath, or Frank O'Hara, or anyone likely to have been included in the Best American Poetry of 1967, had there been one.

So, is that progress? Or the tragedy of assimilation? Phyllis Wheatley redivivus, or a post-racial American poetry? Or one more reason to get snarky about MFA programs?  Or one more reason to be grateful for them?

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